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Jan 31

Farewell to two old friends: Brian Schneider and Nick Johnson

Two members of the team that brought baseball back to Washington have hung up their spikes. Nick Johnson is calling it a career after 10 seasons, and Brian Schneider is retiring after 13 years in the big leagues. You may never see their names in the Ring of Stars at Nationals Park, but they are two men who not only helped to warm the hearts of baseball fans after 34 years with no team to call their own, but made the city’s baseball lore a bit richer.

As is the case in any city where an unfamiliar team is moving in, Washington fans in 2005 were looking for a  hero. Nick Johnson was begging to be that hero –if only he could have stayed on the field. When he was in the lineup, “Big Nick” certainly had a big stick. But it was those long stretches out of the lineup, and the ways he was sidelined, that would define his career.

The fact that Johnson had a penchant for being hit by pitches (23 times in three years) and played in more than 100 games only once with the New York Yankees didn’t stop the Montreal Expos, under the control of the rest of baseball’s owners, from acquiring him in a multi-player trade that sent Javier Vasquez to the Bronx. And the fact that  injuries limited him to just 73 games in his only season with Montreal didn’t stop the club from keeping him as the starting first baseman after moving to Washington.

He rewarded the Nats and their fans by becoming the offensive catalyst of a team that surged to the top of the NL East and stayed there for more than half the 2005 season.Johnson’s gap-hitting prowess kept his average soaring among the league leaders as the Nats shot up in the standings. It peaked at .343 in early June as the team was in the midst of a 10-game winning streak.

But a few weeks later, as the team was completing a nearly incomprehensible 20-6 June, Johnson brought fans back down to earth with one of his trademark freak injuries. He hurt his heel scoring a run in a loss to Toronto, taking an awkward step onto the plate, and landed on the DL for a month. He regained some of his power in August, but his average and OPB slid, and he was just as unable as the rest of the team to halt a catastrophic slide to last place.

Despite the disappointing finish in 2005, the Nats chose to make Johnson the centerpiece of their future, signing him to a three-year, $16.5 million extension, and this time he responded with his most complete season in the majors. Even though the Nats were never in contention, Johnson hit .290 with 24 home runs, 46 doubles and 110 walks for a gaudy .428 on-base percentage.

But just as memorable as that ’06 season was the injury that ended it. On Sept. 23, as the Nats and the New York Mets were playing out the string at Shea Stadium, David Wright hit a popup behind first base. Austin Kearns charged in on the ball as Johnson backed out. They never saw each other and collided at full speed as Wright cruised to third base. Johnson broke his right femur (thigh bone) and did not play again until the Nats opened their new park in 2008.

Even then, he was a key contributor, doubling down the right field line off Tim Hudson to drive in Cristian Guzman with the first run in Nationals Park history. But less than two months into the 2008 season, a wrist injury ended his career in Washington. He was traded in the offseason to Florida, ironically becoming the last member of the team that first took the field at RFK Stadium in ’05 to be jettisoned.

He bounced around from the Marlins to the Yankees and finally to Baltimore, where he tore a ligament in his wrist while striking out on June 27 in Anaheim, ending a season that lasted just 38 games and 102 plate appearances — and ultimately, his career.

Schneider, a coveted left-hand hitting catcher, was known mainly for his defense and game-calling abilities. He caught the first ball thrown out by President George W. Bush at the team’s inaugural home game on April 14, 2005, and endeared himself to Nats fans by playing steady defense behind the plate, getting the occasional clutch hit or home run, and handling the team’s varied pitching staff with aplomb. Schneider helped Livan Hernandez win 24 games over two seasons, handling his soft tosses as deftly as Tony Armas Jr’s lively fastballs.

One of Schneider’s finest moments came in helping Virginia native Bill Bray (who is back in the Nationals organization this year) get his first major league win, without retiring a batter. On June 3, 2006 in Milwaukee, Bray, a former first round draft pick, made his big league debut in the bottom of the eighth, facing slugger Prince Fielder with two out and Corey Koskie on first base. With the Brewers ahead 3-2, a cagey veteran with mediocre speed like Koskie might have been hoping to take advantage of a nervous kid on the mound, and move into position to score an insurance run. But not with Schneider behind the plate. The veteran catcher called for the left-hander to challenge Fielder. Bray delivered a called strike, and Schneider fired the ball to shortstop Royce Clayton to nail Koskie and retire the side.

In the bottom of the inning, with Ryan Zimmerman on third, Schneider belted a 1-0 pitch from Derrick Turnbow over the right field fence to put the Nats ahead 4-3. He then caught Chad Cordero‘s scoreless ninth, recording the last out by catching Carlos Lee‘s foul popup.

Schneider was also behind the plate, and Johnson at first, for what might have been the Nats’ best-pitched game of the pre-Stephen Strasburg era. On Sept. 2, 2006, as they began the final month of a second straight last-place finish against the St. Louis Cardinals, Ramon Ortiz took a no-hitter into the ninth inning. Ortiz had also hit his first major league home run to help the Nats take a 4-0 lead. Alas, Ortiz lost his bid for the history books when Aaron Miles led off the ninth with a single. And after Johnson had erased Miles on a line-drive double play, Ortiz lost the shutout on an Albert Pujols homer. But the battery of Schneider and closer Chad Cordero ended it on four pitches, striking out Scott Rolen to preserve a 4-1 win.

Johnson and Schneider will never be on the dais in Cooperstown, but they defined the journeyman baseball player to a tee. They went about their jobs with pride and professionalism, quietly leaving their marks on the game, and in Johnson’s case, leaving it all out on the field to the point of injury. But most of all, they gave Washington baseball fans some great stories to tell about the early years when the nation’s capital was falling in love with baseball all over again.

 

  • Brian McKeever

    A fitting tribute, except that Nick was traded at the July trading deadline in 2009, not during the 08-09 offseason.